St Giles’ has a fine selection of stained glass windows, the earliest inserted in 1873. The most famous are the beautiful Burne-Jones window and the strikingly different Great West Window which celebrates Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet, and dates from 1985.
During the Middle Ages, there would have been stained glass in the church, but only a few tiny fragments survive. These can be seen in two of the windows in the Lower Aisle. The Reformers disapproved of stained glass windows, because these often depicted saints and other images, and we know that by 1575-6 the St Giles’ windows were filled with clear, diamond–paned glass instead.
William Chambers was determined to insert stained glass again when he restored the Cathedral in the 1870s and 80s. By then Presbyterian objections were gradually fading away. No stained glass had been made in Scotland since the Reformation but in 1837 James Ballantine had set up his studio in Edinburgh. He gained wide publicity when he won a national competition to design some of the stained glass windows for the new Houses of Parliament at Westminster and Chambers commissioned him to produce nine new windows for the Cathedral chancel, illustrating the life of Christ. The well-known artist Robert Herdman advised on the design, and the windows were paid for by a series of donors whose names are recorded on them. The focal point of the series is The Great East Window, donated by Lord Provost of Edinburgh, Sir James Falshaw.
After the death of Chambers, the Cathedral Managing Board continued to deal with the insertion of new windows, mostly depicting biblical scenes. As many as 33 in all were supplied by Ballantine’s firm, and there are others by Daniel Cottier, Edward Burne-Jones, Karl Parsons, William Wilson, Douglas Strachan (North Window, Warden Children Memorial Window) and, most recently, Leifur Breidfjord, who subsequently designed the blue glass porch at the West Door.